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Removing Barriers to Completion: How MCC Helps Students Finish What They Started

The EvoLLLution | Removing Barriers to Completion: How MCC Helps Students Finish What They Started
With tens of millions of Americans left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic, higher ed institutions need to consider their role in getting people back into the workforce. Offering fast-tracked, flexible and affordable education to adult learners is the first step.

The importance of reskilling and upskilling predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology and other disruptions continuously change job descriptions, eliminating some occupations and creating entirely new ones. With tens of millions of Americans newly unemployed, access to career-relevant postsecondary programs is critical.

Similar to how they responded to the Great Recession, higher education institutions are responding to this pandemic by turning their attention to adult learners. Adult-friendly programs are increasingly important as adults seek to retrain and upskill.

Metropolitan Community College (MCC), in Kansas City, MO, exemplifies many best practices in supporting adult learners. As a user of CAEL’s Adult Learner 360 diagnostic tool (through the KC Scholars program), MCC prioritizes their own continuous improvement to better serve adult learners. To learn more about some of the great work MCC has done recently, I spoke with Dr. Kathrine Swanson, MCC’s vice chancellor for student success and engagement.

With over 35 million Americans having some college education but no degree, re-enrolling former students has great potential for addressing skills gaps that hamper not only social mobility but broader economic growth and community prosperity. Last fall, MCC launched Finish What You Started, a debt-forgiveness program that re-engages former students and connects them with academic advising and support to remove barriers to degree completion.

Dr. Swanson explains that the program progressed out of earlier efforts to re-enroll adults with some credit but no credential. MCC found a common barrier to completion was carrying an outstanding balance, which was often less than $1,500. Often, these former students accrued completion-blocking balances from tuition and fees resulting from having to reimburse financial aid after withdrawal.

Initially, MCC partnered with a nonprofit agency that helped former students pay down their balance. Working with this agency permitted students to resume their pursuit of a degree or certificate. However, the demand exceeded what one community-based organization could handle. To complement this assistance, MCC waived its policy of withholding transcripts for students with outstanding debt and students receiving KC Scholars funding. This allowed them to transfer to one of the other 16 institutions within the KC Scholars network.

The momentum generated by these initiatives led to the launch of Finish What You Started. This program supports MCC’s mission to increase the education levels of the area’s adult population while boosting MCC’s strategic goal of optimizing structure and processes. As Dr. Swanson explains, a key question to consider is whether outstanding debt should be considered a real or artificial barrier to completion.

For MCC, the answer was helping students complete their credentials by rewarding persistence and success by erasing past-due balances under $1,500. That’s why Finish What You Started is oriented around persistence and completion. As Dr. Swanson explains, it would be counterproductive if students re-enrolled in higher education and subsequently dropped out, once again carrying new debt or another past-due balance. Debt forgiveness occurs over three semesters, with one third of the balance credited after each term is completed. Once enrolled, students must maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0. Intrusive advising complements this incentive by providing participants with guidance, study skills, and trusted referrals to wraparound support as needed.

For prospective re-enrollees fewer than three semesters from completion, MCC connects them with community resources for help with debt forgiveness or offers a hybrid approach. By using an array of resources, MCC matches individuals with the program that makes the most sense for them, maximizing system-wide efficiency in removing debt barriers.

Finish What You Started helps adult learners who left MCC as far back as 20 years ago, though eligibility requires that the former student not have re-enrolled in higher education in the last two years. The two-year window maintains the program’s strategic focus on removing obstacles for students who, like so many adult learners, have encountered one of life’s many detours that delay educational plans. Students who enrolled in the last two years maintain “current student” status and do not need to reapply to register for courses.

Measuring the impact of this program is premature, but demand is increasing, and the first cohort of enrollees are slated to graduate in December 2020. However, the College is prepared to serve all of the 11,000 former students eligible for Finish What You Started.

Debt forgiveness is one of many accommodations the college provides for adult learners. MCC further promotes completion by linking learning with future earnings. MCC provides relevant labor market information sourced from the U.S. Department of Labor alongside its tuition estimation calculations, exemplifying an emerging best practice for adult learner success. In this way, prospective students can research their program of interest by occupation and understand the return on their investment–a credential that leads them to their desired role. This shows former students the opportunities that non-completion costs them.

In addition, MCC introduced a case-management advising model in fall 2017. This model ensures that each student has a single point of contact who can connect them to other resources at the college. Thanks to community partnerships, MCC counselors have a vast support network for external referrals to link support as needed, though the college also provides many supports in-house.

According to Dr. Swanson, in most cases, it’s not academic performance that prevents degree completion; financial problems often manifest in structural barriers that discourage persistence–or render it impossible. MCC takes steps to get to know their learners, including conducting surveys and ongoing advising, to stay abreast of barriers facing their community.

For example, MCC partners with the Kansas City Area Transit Authority to subsidize bus fare for currently enrolled students. By taking steps to eliminate transportation barriers, MCC helps students commute across the region, including to work, childcare services and appointments.

For students with greater socioeconomic need, MCC provides on-campus food pantries. Through emergency grants and work with community partners, the college connects unhoused students with shelter and housing.

MCC recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic would increase the challenges its students face. Compounding job losses, the lockdown hindered access to these student support systems. To learn how to best provide support, MCC surveyed its students to guide its response.

Dr. Swanson says the survey provided a good assessment of the most pressing student needs. Student voices informed how the college allocated emergency student funds made available by the MCC Foundation. When money from CARES Act  became available, student voices informed how MCC provided emergency grants and support systems.

Dr. Swanson says that MCC’s experience with CAEL’s AL 360 helped the college plan its next steps in supporting adult learners. After completing the parallel student and administration AL 360 surveys, MCC developed and pursued goals it formed from the results. In response to the AL 360 and demand for adult-friendly academic programs, the college launched an adult learner cohort program that offers eight-week modules to fast-track part-time students to completion. To encourage participation, MCC offers a three-credit scholarship for the following spring semester to all students who complete a fall sequence this year. If they meet all criteria, a newly re-enrolled adult learner could benefit from this cohort model, the Finish What You Started program and scholarship funds through KC Scholars.

This vast network of adult learner support explains MCC’s greatest strengths among CAEL’s Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults: financing, student support systems and transitions. Although Dr. Swanson says that there is always more work to do for adult learners, today we can celebrate some exemplary actions the college has taken to address adults’ changing needs in the face of unemployment, a global pandemic and economic uncertainty.

By helping re-enrolled adult learners build success upon stronger foundations of support, MCC more than helps adults finish what they started. The college makes the journey to success more valuable for adult learners and the community that depends on them.


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